DECEMBER 27, 2007
It was a mild winter evening whose spring-like bloom had inspired many to leave their barred windows ajar. Through the metal screen, the sounds of children playing, of distant hawkers and car horns and the smells of exhaust fumes and the neighbor's cooking all wafted in. My mother, grandmother, and I kept an uncomfortable vigil in our living room by the telephone. We had spent the afternoon in prayer, because my aunt's husband, Uncle Sohail, had been rushed to the hospital earlier that day after suffering a sudden stroke. Engrossed thus, we had not thought to turn on the television or check the news.
Benazir Bhutto, herself a daughter of Karachi and a fixture on the city's political scene, was the freest woman we knew. A few days earlier she had returned to Pakistan after a six-year exile. All week Pakistan's news channels had been covering news of a rally she was to address that evening in Rawalpindi. It must have been just a little after 6 p.m. when the telephone rang through the stillness of the sitting room. It is almost dusk, I remember thinking; soon we will hear the call to prayer.
And then, as I picked up the receiver to the old, gray phone, the world slowed. My father was on the other end of the line, calling from the hospital. My mother and grandmother stared at me. "Do you know what has happened?" he asked, his voice rising above the voices of a crowd in the background. "No," I replied, my own voice faltering under the gaze of the two women who waited with me. "Is he okay?" I asked into the wail of ambulance sirens on the other end. "Do you know she has died?" my father answered with a question. "Is he okay?" I asked again. It took him a minute to sort through the collision of questions. My uncle had survived his emergency surgery, he told me. And then, as if it were more important, he added, "Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated in Rawalpindi."
A single moment birthed twin confusions. Uncle Sohail had lived and Benazir Bhutto had died. The complexities of each defied singular emotion; I could not celebrate the continuation of my uncle's life or mourn the cessation of Benazir's. In the moments after I hung up the phone, we said nothing. We had been praying for him to live, for his life to be spared, but were these prayers different from the ones we said decades ago when my grandmother and aunt coined elusive bargains with God to grant my aunt children? Did our sympathy for his present catastrophe erase the memories of his past culpabilities? My mother, grandmother, and I laid out our rugs to say the dusk prayer, as we had done thousands of times before. In the familiar rhythms of our rising and falling prayers, of mouthing verses that had fallen from our lips so many times before, we buried these questions.
Around us the city devolved into riots. It was rush hour when the news broke and angry mobs blocked all the exits of the main highways. Thousands of vehicles caught in traffic were set on fire or simply demolished with crowbars and sticks. My cousins and friends who were caught in the frenzy left their cars and walked to nearby houses for shelter. My father was stranded in the hospital with my aunt while my uncle remained in recovery. Karachi burned for days as news channels played the tape of Benazir's assassination over and over again, a red circle marking her attacker and her last flailing moments. For one odd, brief, and singular moment, the catastrophes of my family and my country had come together, showing me how they were woven together, knotted and inextricable, inside and outside, male and female, no longer separate.
Excerpted from The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.